Monday, June 28, 2010

Doctor Who - The Big Bang

Who needs time travel? The latest series of Doctor Who finished this past weekend, and thanks to technological progress, nobody has to wait years before it shows up on television any more. Back in the eighties, the latest Doctor Who episodes didn’t show up on my TV until long after they’d premiered in the UK, which meant things like Colin Baker episodes were half a decade behind. Waiting that long for the sheer horror of the haircuts in The Twin Dilemma was hard enough, waiting for something brilliant like the first Eleventh Doctor series would have been agony.

Because this latest series really was sheer bloody brilliance on toast. It had the usual flat moments that you find in any television show, and it had large parts that didn’t make any sense, but for anybody who has ever had any connection to Doctor Who it was a series that really could be emotionally profound.

If you have ever had that sort of connection to Doctor Who, but haven’t seen The Big Bang yet, then don’t read any further. As River keeps annoyingly pointing out- here lie spoilers.

* * *

There is some disappointment in the final moments of The Big Bang, when it becomes obvious that all the big questions are not going to be answered. It’s still a mystery why the TARDIS was destroyed, or who was/is/will be behind it. At least it’s acknowledged and it’s fairly obvious it’s going to be a mystery that spreads right across the Moffat/Smith seasons and is bound to have some kind of important payoff. (My money’s still on the 12th Doctor….)

But never mind the big plot climax resolution stuff. Some people get far too hung up on that sort of thing in this sort of show, bleating about deux ex machinas, without really understanding what it actually means. The series is never going to end on a downer – there will be sacrifices and pain, but the Doctor and his TARDIS and his human friends will always be off somewhere new for an adventure in time and space at the end of the story.

So the universe is saved by somebody piloting a craft into the heart of the sun and the Doctor is saved by Amy Pond’s belief and they’re off again to fight some mad old god on the Orient Express….. in space. The future looks bright - there is a lovely new dynamic with Amy and Rory’s marriage, and not just because he really is Mr Pond. There hasn’t been a couple like that in the TARDIS since Ben and Polly, as long as you ignore all the Fifth Doctor fanfic where they were all shuffling rooms.

And it is genuinely nice to se Rory back – he isn’t quite the companion Amy is, but he is the boy who waited two thousand years to look after his girl. The man deserves a little happiness.

Saving the universe is what the Doctor does, so there should be no surprises there. The best thing about The Big Bang wasn’t that stuff, and it wasn’t even the Doctor’s glorious wedding dancing. It was the way he fades away at the end of the adventure, and the way he comes back.

The Doctor becomes a story – and a bloody good one at that. Living only as a dim memory in the mind of a little girl, an imaginary friend that everybody hoped she would grow out of one day. It’s a great big booming obvious metaphor to the audience’s one relationship with the doctor, and with all fictional characters. The Doctor isn’t real – he was created to fill television time in the early 1960s, but anybody who watches the programme as a child can tell you that he most definitely is real. He exists in all of our heads, along with all his friends and all his adventures and we know it’s stupid, but we can grow up and get married and have proper lives and still expect to stumble across that weird blue box on a street corner.

There is always a part of my soul that knows that the Doctor can still show up and take me away from the boring old world and show me something new and exciting. It could get a bit scary, and it can get a bit horrible, but it will always be exciting.

And Amy knows just what that feels like. Fortunately, the universe has been running right through her head for most of her life, so she can bring the big man back. He remains a story in our world, but the dancing fool lives in Amy’s world, and that’s good enough.

* * *

A lot of credit for the emotional impact of this twist in the tale has to go to Matt Smith. The usual knee-jerk reactions to the announcement that he would be the youngest ever Doctor can be thoroughly dismissed – this is the oldest Doctor so far. The Tenth used to have so much mercy, but his successor is just a bit tired of it all. He still has that passion for life and new experiences, but he can also be a bit weary.

In his last scene at Amy’s bedside, when his story finally comes to an end and he fades into oblivion, the Doctor really is an old man, tired of the fight but still disappointed to retire. He faces his end with dignity, happy to trade his life for the universe, and almost pleased to hand off the baggage of that impossible life.

And, of course, The Doctor is also thinking five steps ahead and an old man’s story about the best vehicle he ever owned is a nice little time bomb of resolution, laying down the foundations of his own return. He's clever like that.

* * *

Right before she buggers back off to the future, River Song warns the Doctor that everything changes the next time they meet, but it’s a bit of an empty warning. In the Doctor’s world, there is always change. He is definitely getting older, but he has enough life to go on for a long time yet and there will be plenty of other changes to come.

There will be new companions, new monsters and ultimately a new Doctor, but the madman in his box still has plenty of his story still to tell. If it's half as much fun as this most recent series, it will live a whole lot longer.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

All the Love, all the Rockets: Ghost Of Hoppers

The 25th anniversary of Love and Rockets came and went a couple of years ago, and it was a pity it was seen as a relatively quiet achievement. In particular, it was a real shame more wasn't made of the fact that it is a comic which has maintained an extraordinarily high level of quality for that quarter-century, pushing the limits of the medium while still maintaining a humanity to their work that gives their stories real emotional weight.

Unfortunately, the common perception amongst the comic reading community is that this consistency means there is nothing new left to say about the series. Most reviews of the new issues that appeared every few months before the latest shift to an annual format were, at best, a brief look at what happened, typically followed by a few words of praise for Los Bros Hernandez.

Even the first two issues of the current annual series fell victim to this. There were certainly more people taking note of it for the change in format, with many finding special praise for Jaime's mental superheroics, but real analysis of the issue remained rare.

Any further comments greeting the new work are likely to be along the lines that Jaime's work remains the most accessible, while older brother Beto's comics might be a bit weirder and more preoccupied with the sexual hijinks of his characters, but remains worthy stuff. Beto’s work hasn’t had the universal acclaim that a lot of his earlier work has, with his adaptions of films that never really existed leaving some readers puzzled, and others disappointed. Speak of the Devil was greeted with several vicious reviews, including a disappointed take in The Comics Journal.

The odd interview is unlikely to bring up much that is new. Considering the interview subjects have been known to hide away massively crucial plot points as sketch book jokes, it takes a lot to make an interview with these men a chore to read, but some still manage by sticking to the same questions.

And that's always been about it until the next issue rolls along in another three (or 12) months. But in a medium where the latest issue of Blackest Night can be deconstructed and overanalysed to the point of incoherence, this is, frankly, fucking pathetic. Just because the Hernandez brothers' current output is just as good as it ever was does not mean there is nothing more to say about it.

The last regular series of Love and Rockets launched in 2001 after the brothers spent several years working on their own individual comics. Since then they have produced some stunning work. Some of it didn't always strike exactly the right chord, but for every misstep, the brothers came up with something extraordinary.

Jaime's comics were particularly meaty in the reinvigorated series, his Locas saga building on what has come before to stretch out into something magnificent. In the past, Jaime's work has sometimes been overshadowed by the complex narrative of Beto's Palomar and Luba storylines, with some critics appearing to assume his clean, easy art style somehow means it is more simple. But his work over the past decade has been as good as anything he or his brothers have ever produced.

Part of the relative lack of recognition could be put down to the painstaking pace at which his stories unfold. The first nine issues of the last series had barely a dozen pages of new material from Jaime every few months. While he manages to pack more drama and emotion into those pages than almost anything else on the stands, rereading the current storyline all over again whenever a new issue comes out becomes a necessity.

Mind you, one of the best things about Love and Rockets has always been this necessity. Pick up almost any new issue and there will be a little gem of information or characterisation that provokes a dive back into the comic’s history, each tiny little piece of the story reaching out into other parts of it, bringing it all back together. It's not just nostalgia for old times, it's the constant reiteration that we are all shaped by our pasts, and our current lives are still being shaped by previous experiences.

There are other factors that might play a part in the lack of any critical comment any time a new issue is released. Not only can it can take a long time for a storyline to sink in, but the crucial nature of events and the part they play in the overall narrative might not even be noticed. For reasons that are impossible to explain without boring the shit out of everyone in the whole world, the entire comics medium has been based on the concept of dripfeeding stories out, a little bit at a time, and while it is a pure joy to receive shots of Los Bros Hernandez’s comics every few months, it is only when a story that forms part of the overall saga is complete that a proper perspective is possible.

After a couple of years, Jaime’s Maggie storyline, which ran in L&Rv2 #s 1-10 and was reprinted in the Ghost of Hoppers book, still stands as a truly extraordinary piece of work – a story about ghosts and loss, and new friends and old towns. There are demons in the darkness, both literally and figuratively, and odd little talismans that bind us all to that weirdness.

It’s a story about growing up and sticking by your friends and all the confusion that brings. It’s about adapting to the fact you’re normal and still having to avoid demonic dogs. But most of all, like almost all of Jaime’s stories, it’s about Love.

* * *

Anybody who has gone back to their old home town will have felt it. The sense of familiarity fighting against the shock of the new. The little differences that throw you off, the missing pieces that are gone forever.

If the past really is a different country, what about the actual locations where all that personal history took place? Out in the physical world they might have vanished, but they’ll always be there in your head, the details fading while the core memories just get stronger and stronger.

In Ghost of Hoppers, this sensation is taken to extraordinary lengths. It's a story where the main character keeps returning to her old town and is almost trapped in her own past, something demons, personal or otherwise, are only too willing to take advantage of.

Hernandez has come up with dozens of memorable characters in the quarter century he has been creating Locas comics, but through it all, Margarita Luisa Perlita Chascarrillo has remained his finest character. Starting out as a cute young punk with a beer bottle in one hand and a spanner in the other, she has grown up with the comic, becoming more rounded as time went on, both physically and emotionally.

Maggie has been put through emotional roller coaster and taken rides on her own private ghost trains over the years. In this respect, Ghost of Hoppers is no different, but Maggie finds herself facing something just as horrific as the loss of dear friends: the desperate mediocrity of a rapidly approaching middle age.

One of Hernandez’s greatest strengths is in the sheer universality if his characters. Just ask any decent comic shop owner how many times they’ve been told Hopey is based on them. Maggie has a mixed race heritage and has grown up in an environment of punk rock, mad wrestling and space mechanics in California, but her fears and thoughts are easily recognisable for anybody who does not share her environment and upbringing. Through Maggie, Hernandez articulates the same things we’re all thinking, the same loves and worries and joys.

This does not, in any way, make her mundane. Maggie has had a tough life and while she often curses her own weaknesses, she has shown a remarkable strength in just getting through it all. In this respect, the brief slice of her life that forms the backbone of Ghost of Hoppers shows Maggie, and Hernandez himself, in the brightest of lights, despite the darkness creeping in at the edges.

Sometimes he pulls away from Maggie, and leaves her alone with her thoughts – a silent panel with an unreadable expression that still says so much.

For somebody who can spend literally years telling a simple tale that might be set over a few days, Jaime doesn’t fuck about when it comes to letting the reader know where he is going. Even before the story gets going in Ghost Of Hoppers, two wordless images almost totally sum up the themes and feelings that will be explored in greater depth in the story. The first is the cover to the first issue of the renewed Love and Rockets comics itself, a police line-up. It’s already been used before with different characters - on the cover of the very first L&R comic ever as well as the first collected edition.

But while the first two times the line up was used featured several different characters, this latest incarnation is all Maggie, six different examples of her development over the year. You’ve got Maggie The Mechanic, Maggie the party girl, Maggie the young Chica. And hiding there at the back is the current version, naked and scared.

This deceptively simple image not only reminds the reader of the different periods Maggie and the Locas comics themselves have gone through over the years, it also shows Maggie hiding behind her own past, worried to face the future.

The second image, taking up two-thirds of the first page of the story, casts Maggie in a better light. Leaning back against a fence with a calm expression of peace and contentment in the sun, the wind in her hair and her posture infinitely sexier than a thousand anorexic super-heroines with big hair and impossible spines.

But there, in the background, is the darkness. From the house behind her evil eyes peer. In this image they can’t touch Maggie, but it’s obvious they won’t hesitate to bring her inside their world, given half the chance.

The first part of the story itself sees that darkness beginning to creep around the edges of Maggie’s life, as her life-long friend Izzy comes to stay as part of a book promotion. Izzy is familiar with the evil, having encountered it in an intimate manner at times over the years, most notably in the short Flies on the Ceiling story.

The darkness usually happy enough tormenting Izzy, who has enough ghosts in her own past for the devil to feast on. But Maggie has always been around the edges of despair and total loss. She even shares some of Izzy’s ghosts and has come close to the thing that lives in Mrs Galindo’s house several times, right from when she was a child.

Early on in the first Love and Rockets series, Hernandez started making a point of not showing some of the biggest, most important events in his character’s lives. They would happen in the background. Characters would experience something shattering, only to literally disappear from the comic book for several years, showing up as someone new, someone who has put their pain behind them to get on with life, as best they can.

Over the next 20 incredible years, Hernandez has filled in those gaps, only to add crucial new developments with ease. Shortly before the new series started, Maggie ended up married to a complete stranger, only for Hernandez to show he wasn’t such a stranger after all. Filling in the back story shows the richness of the characters that have now been built up for decades, gives long-time readers a thrill as they realise a question they didn’t even know they had is answered before them.

This is seen happening several times in Ghost of Hoppers, flashbacks to parts of her old life, when she was young and cool. Filling in the blanks. At other times a big event can also be so obvious it could even be easily missed. The phone call at the first chapter‘s climax ends with something that has apparently never been said before. Luckily, Hernandez actually raises the significance of those words later on, just in case it wasn’t clear enough the first time.

People who are too scared of the significant backstory behind these characters to give the series a go are deluding themselves. This is a complicated narrative with multiple characters across several decades, but it manages to keep things clear with easy, accessible storytelling. It might look like a lot of hard work, but as a storyteller, Hernandez is there to help you find the way.

* * *

“Go ahead, you boring people, have your laugh. You’re looking at an equally useless person. How embarrassing is that? I-I’m normal.”

All the devil dogs and black magic in the world isn’t half as depressing for Maggie as the realisation that hits her in the second chapter of Ghost of Hoppers. Now in her late thirties, but far from settled down, Maggie realises she’s just like everybody else.

Much of the arrogance of youth stems from the certain knowledge that we are destined for great things, that the world is ours for the taking. Granted, for some this actually comes close to becoming reality, while others manage to maintain the horrible delusion until their dying day.

But for most of us, the realisation that we’re not actually that different, that we’re not anything special, is something we come to understand and live with, as best we can. Maggie’s own little epiphany at this point in the story is another example of Hernanedz’s ability to use his characters to speak to something in all of us, to touch a part of our souls that can sometimes feel so lonely.

And all this is just the first few pages, with a short appearance from Maggie’s ex-husband. The rest of this chapter not only sees a Dan Clowes character appear, (another Love and Rockets tradition that has seen the brothers insert their characters into each other’s stories and include characters from altogether different creators), but also has Maggie hook up with the volatile Vivian. Seen in the background of previous stories, she latches onto Maggie, joining her for a drink without bothering with anything as mundane as the exchange of names.

Maggie also has a fairly typical conversation with her best friend and occasional lover Hopey. While Maggie is still reeling from her own normality, Hopey shows remarkable awareness of her own coolness, but is left confused when Maggie leaves, disappointed that the words she heard over the phone can not apparently be said to her face.

Luckily for Maggie, if not for Vivian, normal life still involves a threat with a knife, one of the most accurate portrayals of two women fighting each other ever shown in comics and eventual arrest.

Maggie might still have trouble coming to terms with the mundane, but her idea of what is normal is still fascinating. She deals with it, as best she can, even if bail might be a bit more than seven dollars and thirty cents.

* * *

The story piles on the unease from there. Maggie ends with Viv and another old friend up in a dangerous stranger’s house, sneaking out the back when he unexpectedly shows up, and kind words from Izzy –notably more for their rarity than their truth - hold off the shadow dogs. For a little while.

By the fourth chapter, Izzy has got too much to handle and is bundled off home. When Maggie follows her for an exchange of talismans, the ghosts start following her with renewed attention and she is lost in her home town for the first time.

Maggie’s past keeps creeping up on her – drinking with Doyle, she finds that a group of old Hoppers punk rejects she used to hang around with have still been bopping around together – living their own lives well out of Maggie’s orbit. Further flashbacks show that Maggie has always been living on the edge of something mysterious and other, with the striking image of a dog walking on its hind legs towards a younger, drunker Maggie and in the present the inner voices get louder as a fire begins to burn.

* * *

In the final chapter of Ghost of Hoppers, Maggie is dosed by the next generation – who are always annoying – and the mixture of drugs, demons and the weight of her own story drag her out of time and space, pinballing along the history of a haunted house and her own connection to it.

On her journey, there are touching revelations and painfully quiet dignity. The sad story of the Galindos and why it led to Maggie’s naming. The ghost of the haunted house was Maggie all along, and that’s why a glass left out overnight was always half empty by dawn – she could never turn down a drink.

She is the ghost, walking in her own past – revisiting all those brilliant old parties, a brief sighting of her long-lost cousin and very best friend, and the tragic impact of Speedy’s death. This last piece is just three panels, but is a horribly powerful moment. Maggie and Izzy’s immediate reaction to Speedy’s suicide was never seen when it happened, more than two decades ago. But in three panels, Maggie is pulled back to that terrible moment, and she sees herself lost in pity while Izzy counts the flies on the ceiling.

The years speed up, the horrors pile on, but Izzy makes it out, scarred and clear. In the climax of the story – for just a moment – it looks like Maggie isn’t going to be as fortunate. It looks like she could have died in the fire and really is a ghost.

But while she walks with the ghosts for a little while, they leave her alone. Al that’s left is a sweet two page epilogue, showing that weird shit comes and goes, but life goes on. The game of life and love is just as confusing as ever. Maggie just does the best she can, just like the rest of us.

* * *

Ghost of Hoppers is an extraordinary comic book, and after a few thousand words, I haven’t even scratched its surface. There are a million other things that make the story brilliant, warm and thoughtful. There are pieces of dialogue that say so much, and Jaime’s magnificent use of black ink – shadows that creep up on the unwary, the blank space between the nose and the lips of characters in profile.

I live my life to a Love & Rockets beat and Ghost of Hopper is another brilliant step in the story. It’s endlessly rewarding and I could talk about it forever. But I’ll still never be able to encapsulate its brilliance, no matter how many words I write. Because it really does affect me in a way I can not describe – just like all art should.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hands in the mix

Mort Weisenger was a great businessman who could see what sold Superman comics, and came up with a plot formula that is almost mathematical in its preciseness, while still giving the kids what they wanted.

He could also be a complete dick, but this is when men were men and the future was a shining vision of hard steel and moulded glass and nearly everybody thought they had to be a dick to drag the human race on that long, slow road to progress.

Weisenger's contribution to the world manifested itself in the editorial iron grip he held on the Superman franchise for a considerable number of years. For several decades worth of stories, one Superman comic was pretty much indistinguishable from another. Clear simple stories with a crazy fucking hook and a good slab of resolution.

It kept the readers coming back for more, even as evolution of the character and concept dragged at a crawl. Some of the comics and stories that came out under Weisenger's control of the Super-books managed to transcend their restrictions, offering up slices of pure science-fiction craziness that burned into the brains of these young readers and still have massive influence on the current creators.

Most of them were complete rubbish, but you could sometimes find a nice panel or line or image in there to make the effort seem worthwhile. Looking back on them now, they can seem crude and dull, but Weisenger had millions of children lapping that stuff up over the years.

Somewhere down the corridor, Julie Schwartz had his own vision for what worked and sneaked in innovation on a wheelbarrow full of mad ideas. Each man's editorial voice was, like many editors at the time, distinct and unique. The creators didn't matter. It was all about the characters, who might just be colourful and weird and interesting enough to get that ten cents worth of pocket money every month. No writer or artist or colourist or letterer or editor was bigger than that.

This was the face of a system that lasted decades. At various points in comics history, the creators have grabbed the spotlight away from the editors, usually led by a few distinct and raw voices that took control through their own skills.

That could have led to a utopia of creator brilliance, freed of all restrictions and oversights, anything could be possible. Instead, we got Brigade #1.

Superman is more than 70 years old now and DC has shown recent signs of returning to the age of the editor-driven storyline. It doesn’t matter who actually writes the latest long and drawn-out super saga, as long as an editorial vision is adhered to.

Problem is, it's hard to shake the feeling that everybody is so bloody nice that no real creativity is going on - storyline are worked out in consensus, plot by committee, everybody gets to have their say.

In an interview with David Bishop for the Judge Dredd Megazine a little while back, Alan Grant described the end to his extremely lucrative run on various Batman titles, tracing his dismissal on the character to the creation of the Cataclysm crossover.

Grant blamed some of the editorial staff for the mess and suggested they were aging fans who were more impressed by the cool moments than the amount of plot holes that crop up to get there.

He also said that later on he ran into one of those responsible for his misery and the former editor was apologetic over his previous actions. After building a bit of experience in both work and life, he realised there could have been a better way of handling the whole situation.

I don't know the people involved, but it's safe to assume they don't think of themselves as bad people, they genuinely wanted to help the characters in the comics they edit and decided their way was the best. Unfortunately, it usually results in a run of mediocre comics that are quickly forgotten, as creators do the bare minimum to keep their editor happy.

Higher up the food chain, Dan DiDio comes out with his own proclamations, puts characters through some bizarre turns and has presided over a frequently incoherent universe that needs constant crisis coming. But he still seems like a pretty affable guy, who joins everybody for drinks after work and tells semi-amusing stories about his penis.

Some editors – including the legendary Archie Goodwin and the delightful Karen Berger – know they get the best work out of their creators by stepping back and letting them get on with it.
But on most mainstream comics, it’s the editor who pushes the title in certain directions. They’re a lot better at not insulting the creators, but they ultimately have the final say. And if it’s not the individual editor who is controlling things, chances are it’s someone higher up the food chain. DiDio is more hands on than many executive editors overseeing entire universes, but he’s not unique.

And the group editorial approach rarely produces anything that is actually as exciting as the things a truly talented individual can come up with. Plot by consensus, finding that lowest common denominator that everybody can be happy with, it rarely leads anywhere worthwhile.

It’s interesting that the concept of writing rooms works so well in network television, while comics are a more individual-driven success. But it is a medium that rewards personal vision, far more than bland homogeny.

Maybe what DC really need is another Weisenger, another hard bastard who says that things are the way they are and you can hit the pavement if you don't like it. There is something to learn from all the great magnificent bastards, who may make lives miserable from time to time, but craft legends and profit with a dedicated focus on a perfect formula.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Too much cost, not enough fun

Mainstream comic books might be making a $1 price leap to $3.99, but I haven’t paid four bucks for a new superhero comic book in more than 15 years.

Buying comic books in New Zealand has always been an expensive habit, but this latest price leap is much worse than usual. With comics traditionally costing about three times as much as the comic price in local currency, a $1 price increase leads to a rise of almost $3 in local money, and that’s just too much.

It’s nothing new - I can remember when comic readers in the US moaned about issues going from 75c to $1, when it meant comics in my neck of the woods were going from $2.15 to $2.99. It was unfortunate, and meant I could never, ever afford all the comics I really wanted, but it also meant a bit of quality control and ensured that I’ve always got something I know I’m going to enjoy in some way

I also always figured that those kind of prices sorted out the real comic obsessives over the fair weather fans. Anybody could drop a couple of bucks on a comic, but there are no half arsed collectors when you’re shelling out well over $50 a week to buy little more than half a dozen titles.

The differences between the prices can largely be attributed to the differences between the two currencies, (the NZD is currently trading at around the US70c mark), so when there is a big currency movement, that can lead to substantial cuts or rises in local money. But the sheer fact of living on the arse end of the world means imported comics are always going to be substantially higher than the number on the cover, because you have to take into account the huge distances the books need to travel.

The worst cases of this geographic prejudice are usually found outside the mainstream, when excellent publishers like Drawn & Quarterly or Fantagraphics have had big clearence sales, with brilliant comics available for peanuts. I’ve almost bought tonnes of stuff, only to find at the very last second that the cost of freighting the books to this part of the world could literally run into hundreds of dollars, more than wiping out any gains from the sale.

But it’s the superhero comics that are easiest to give up when the cost gets too high. Up until very recently, you could usually pick up a standard new issue of any mainstream comic book for about $7.

That was all right. $7 isn’t so bad, and it’s been pretty stable about that level for quite a while. But the shift to the $3.99 price point is killing the monthly for me. Every comic that goes up to price goes right out of my range. It takes a comic that already costs about $7 a pop to closer to $10, and that’s just a bit too much.

A lift to $3.50 wouldn’t be so bad, and would push the cost to more than $8, which is okay, but there is something about that $10 mark which is just too much.

Not that there is a lot to prune out. The general mediocrity that is modern mainstream comics isn’t even worth that $7 (although I still can’t resist buying ridiculously average Superman comics if I can pick them up for a $1 each). If all Marvel superhero comics suddenly cost $3.99 next month, the only one I’d drop is Fantastic Four. (Which is no great loss, considering I’m looking for any excuse to stop buying the title. It only ended up being put aside for me because I have an uncontrollable man crush on Millar/Hitch comics and decided to give the Hickman/Eaglesham run a chance, but oddly unsatisfying art, sharply abrupt endings and a odd feeling of condescension.)

Despite a chronic inability to wrap anything up with a satisfying resolution, there is still a lot to like in DC and Marvel’s output, but none of them are worth $10. Even Batman and Robin – by far my favourite superhero comic currently being published – would get dropped like a hot potato the instant the price goes up.

Ultimately, I’m always going to spend the same amount on comics, no matter what format they’re in. But the death of the monthly needs I don’t need them right now, and I’ve surprised myself with my willingness to wait for a desired comic. (I’m still holding off on the second Seaguy series until I can get it in a book.) In a weird way, it makes it easier to avoid spoilers if you’re waiting a few months – in comic culture a couple of months is an eternity and everybody has moved on to talk about something else by the time a decent collection rolls along.

There is another option, and if I was so inclined, I could download damn near everything published every week, at no cost. But reading comics on a computer is No Fun, no matter how it is presented.

The only comics I have ever downloaded have been eight-year-old issues of the Judge Dredd Megazine and Marvel’s black and white horror magazines from the 1970s. I would still gladly, within reason, buy these issues if I could, but I have literally searched the entire country for them and come up empty and the overseas options are severely hampered by the price of postage, leading to unfortunate torrenting.

I’m also all about the object, and just don’t enjoy reading comics on a computer screen. I’ve truly enjoyed reading comics as diverse as Achewood, FreakAngels, Bayou and the Perry Bible Fellowship when they’ve been collected into print form, but have absolutely no interest in reading them off a screen. It feels too much like work.

So instead I wait, and as more monthlies price themselves out of contention, I end up waiting for more and more. It drags me out of the overall conversation about the latest comics, but that’s no great loss. I will miss going into a comic shop every week and getting a variety of different titles, but that pleasure just isn’t worth the cost any more.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Advances in medical science and increases in general health knowledge have seen the oldest living generation live full, healthy lives right into their nineties. These fine folk have endured some tremendous upheavals in their lives, but have soldiered on through, and a large amount are still incredibly productive members of society.

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing WW2 veterans who took part in bombing raids over Europe, and was amazed at how hale and hearty these men were. Despite being well into their nineties, they were still full of sharp insights and strong handshakes, and rattled off vastly entertaining stories of bailing out of flaming planes at 30,000 feet and hiding from the Gestapo in barn lofts, surprised that anybody would be really interested in their tales.

After a comic career steeped in creativity, it is heartening to see the likes of Joe Kubert still producing work. Some of the storytelling in the recent Tor miniseries he did was a little clumsy to the modern eye, with unnecessary captions and a fairly pedestrian plot that ended abruptly, but his art still carries the vigour and life that has been the hallmark of Kubert's long career. The last phase in his career has seen Kubert strip back his art to the bare minimum and while his storytelling can still get a little meandering, his line is as strong as ever, pulling in the eye with his scratchy simplicity. The Sergent Rock series in Wednesday Comics was marvellous in its giant, bold strokes, but books like his recent look at a pivotal moment in the Vietnam war are raw and powerful.

And by God, at least Will Eisner was at it to the end. The Protocols of Zion didn't really work, but at least the old fella was stretching his skills.

It’s so sad to see so many of these bright and vivacious personalities pass away, but artists and writers and editors and letterers and secretaries that were there when the medium was born have now left behind an awesome body of work, and can leave this life knowing they left their mark.

But while we've become used to the creators of comics golden age slipping away quietly, usually with a fair look at their mighty accomplishments and a cute (and often moving) anecdote from the likes of Mark Evanier, it still hurts to lose those from the next generation. Creators like Steve Gerber and Dave Cockrum were almost perfect symbols of the seventies age of reinvention and reinvigoration. Even without working together, Gerber's wordy creepiness lives in the same glorious genre ghetto as Cockrum's science-fiction wet dreams. Steve could make you feel tremendously sorry for a muck monster with no brain, Dave could make you believe the Starjammers really were a galactic legend.

We've lost both in recent years, and the comics world has become a tiny bit less interesting for this loss. Both were still producing some fine work in their twilight years, and were also getting to that wonderful age where you can say what you like, because you don't really give a damn what anybody thinks anymore. The cruel hand of time has taken away any future stories these gentlemen may have given us, both off the page and on.

But even though every death is a tragedy, a loss of somebody still in their prime can be heartbreaking. In the last couple of years, several artists, including Mike Wieringo, Mike Turner, Seth Fisher and the previously honoured Johnny Hinkleton have all been lost far too soon. Wieringo built up a solid amount of work with his groovy super-heroics and was gone at 44 - a real shock. Wieringo was somebody who was always on the cusp of something truly remarkable. He certainly managed to keep sone good shit going, and left behind some beautiful comics, but his last work was some of his very best. He was getting better all the time and there is a real tragedy in the fact that he never got to take his talent to its ultimate level.

Michael Turner’s unique approach to anatomy and painful posing didn’t receive as much critical love as Wieringo’s work, but he obviously found an audience who loved his work. Judging by the mournful eulogies that greeted his death in 2008, Turner faced his end with grace, dignity and humour, and that’s far more important that the length of Supergirl’s ribcage.

The death of Seth Fisher – who tumbled to his doom from the roof of a club in Osaka – was another real tragedy, because he was a truly unique talent. While there are plenty of up and coming artists willing to emulate Turner’s success by following in his footsteps, Fisher was the type of idiosyncratic artist who carved out his own piece of comic culture that nobody could ever fully occupy again. Like Wieringo, Fisher had done a number of extremely worthy projects and was really primed to do something truly career defining.

All gone now. All that potential, all that life and vigour, gone and the world really is not quite as good without them, The latest Indiana Jones movie had more than a few dodgy moments, but it also had one stone-cold classic line when Jim Broadbent points out that they’re reached the age where “life stops giving us things and starts taking them away”, a single ray of truth hiding amongst the big explosions and flailing fists of fury.

We will see more of these wonderful talents taken over the coming years and tragedy isn’t confined to the old. Unique perspectives on the world will flare and die, and while many will live to a happy and content old age, others will be lost, just as they get going.

The world goes on, and new talent comes through with its own take on everything, but that never makes the pain of what’s been lost any easier.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Same Bat-time, same Bat-captions

Batman and Robin is a fast, slick and gorgeously entertaining read. It barrels along at a great pace without pausing for breath, but never feels tired. This is partly because of the mostly kinetic artwork and frantic happenstance, but after re-reading the first 12 issues of the series, there is another mitigating factor – no bloody captions.

In the whole run so far, there have been barely any captions. The Red Hood’s scarred sidekick got her own inner monologue that filled up a few captions during the second story arc, but that’s about it – no tortured musing on the pain of being a superhero, no establishing captions, no “meanwhile” or “soon…” or dates or anything.

It’s a surprisingly effective technique, forcing the reader to rely on actions and dialogue to follow the story. Fortunately, after decades of creating pop comics, Grant Morrison knows how to distil everything he needs to say in one piece of dialogue and relies on this to shoot ahead with the story. (The best example of this might just have been his Green Arrow dialogue in Final Crisis, which was so refreshingly direct it showed why the character was a true individual in a universe of power.)

So Batman and Robin get by on quick quips and sheer momentum, and isn’t that all we need from a Batman comic? Is there really any need for acres of indecipherable cursive text for mood or feeling? Is there any desire for another comic with multi-character captions duelling it out for the reader’s attention?

* * *

When thought balloons went out of fashion sometime around lunchtime in 1984, it was seen as a minor step forward in the medium. It certainly helped raise the readability of the most basic stories, while also forcing writers to actually put a bit of thought into how their stories were presented, when they couldn't rely on a running commentary appearing in big fluffy clouds over a character's head.

But then Frank Miller went and ruined it for everybody, with those glorious captions peppered throughout his work in the 1980s and beyond. Miller really got inside the head of his characters in the Ronin, Daredevil and Batman comics he produced in the 80s, and with a healthy sense of irony and a sharp eye for the right word, he showed a thousand other writers how to over-do it.

So just as the mainstream of the medium were getting rid thought balloons and sound effects in a bid to progress the form, it was Miller over in his own little world who gave writers a new crutch with the caption box.

Now, they're fucking everywhere, in some wildly diverse super-comics. Sometimes they serve a point, offering the vaguest of entertainment value by juxtaposing the actions of a character with what they're thinking. Again, this was something Miller has always excelled at, and can be seen in the very first Sin City story where Marv drives off a pier while still swearing revenge, thinking only of Goldie and moving into auto-pilot to escape the corrupt killers after him.

Unfortunately, when people copy Miller’s tricks, they often pick up on the wrong things. We’ve had nearly quarter of a century of misery-guts Batman because nobody seemed to notice the humour or irony or goddamn human emotion embedded in the Dark Knight Returns, but picked up on the fact that he grimaced a lot.

* * *

After reading a bunch of recently collected Batman comics that date back to the 90s, I found it was a whole lot easier to just ignore the captions altogether. It meant some plot points were harder to pick up on, but it’s a Batman comic. It’s not hard to understand.

A lot of the ease with which I could skip over this stuff is due to the fact that there is no way I am ever going to plow through caption after caption of cursive text revealing Batman’s inner-most feelings. The use of cursive is one of my great turn-offs in superhero comics and the printing process on cheap paper can often render them almost illegible. There is nothing wrong with being challenged by a new comic by Dan Clowes, but a bloody Batman comic shouldn’t be hard work to read.

So most of these captions are just superfluous, showing nothing but contempt for the reader's own ability to understand what's going on, while allowing writers to go totally overboard with the tortured metaphors and flowery language.

In real life it's the actions and things we say that define us in the eyes of others, surely comic writers can do the same, tearing away that crutch. There is bound to be a bit of hobbling, but at least we'll be walking free.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Slumming it in the silver age

Last month I bought my first ever Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four.

Like all good comic people, I’d read loads of their stories over the years, but they had always been reprinted in the dull monochrome of the Essential series and the brightly slick versions. Even the cheapest Fantastic Four comics from that legendary 100+ issue run were always outside my price range, so the reprints were just fine.

And then I saw #62 in the $1 bin at the local comic store and I fell in love with it. It’s all beat up to hell, but there are no missing pages and that cover still pops. There’s Blastaar shooting the shit out of the Fantastic Four with his hands and one of Kirby’s brilliant double-page spreads of the Negative Zone, all fucked-up photo montage and little old reed, floating in the middle of it.

Sometimes I fall completely in love with a single issue of an ongoing superhero comic. It’s hard to predict what will strike my fancy, but every now and then I fall hard for a particular book and it can be a little embarrassing. Once it was New Warriors #1. Another time it was the first Daredevil comic by Kesel and Nord. Whatever it is, every now and again, there will be something about an individual issue that hits all the right buttons and I’ll find myself reading it over and over again, just to look at it. It’s something in the design, something in the story, something in the whole damn thing

I love this Fantastic Four comic book. It’s delicate, and needs to be properly cared for, but it’s also scarred for life. There are creases in pages that have been there longer than I’ve been alive, the paper is scarred on a molecular level and it looks like a cat has had a go at the cover. The paper is yellowed, curling and chafing around the edges.

But it’s still hanging in there and I’m going to take care of the poor little fella because he’s the prettiest damn comic I’ve seen this year.

* * *

Growing up in a post-Neal Adams comic world, Kirby was always one of those things that it took me a long, long time to appreciate. I didn’t fall hopelessly in love with his Fourth World saga until I read the latest brightly coloured collected editions, and I realised I’d been a fool for a long, long time.

It also didn’t help that I genuinely didn’t see a lot of these early Marvel comics around. There was no comic shop or hundreds of kilometres when I was growing up, and any decent back issues older than 1987 quickly vanished into collector’s vaults, trash cans and the occasional second hand bookstore. There were odd collections and reprints, but the only wasy you could erally find out what happened in the past were in the pages of things like Marvel Saga and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Editions, making these reference comics invaluable.

It’s fun to sneer at that Marvel Saga series these days, and it took a bit of a critical battering from the likes of Amazing Heroes at the time, but I devoured any issues I could get, because it filled in a lot of gaps in my head.

At one point, I owned more than ten thousand comic books, and not a single one had been published before 1971. It wasn’t for want of trying, but the few issues of silver age X-Men or Avengers that were around on the local market were far beyond my means. It was hard to justify paying $45 for Amazing Spider-Man #89 when that would buy a couple of new trade paperbacks.

But since finding that Fantastic Four with the seductively dark red colour and sexy Stan’s Soapbox, I’ve managed to score a few more of these old comics that have been loved to bits. I found that same Spider-Man #89 for a dollar, because somebody had cut out the value stamp inside, and found a couple of Iron Man and Daredevil comics from the very end of the Silver Age. In fact, it’s right down to the very month, with one of the soapboxes sadly reporting that Jack Kirby had left the company and that’s the end of an era right there.

I also got the first Fantastic Four annual for a couple of bucks in recent weeks, mainly because somebody scrawled a big bloody 12 into the cover with a felt pen, and then somebody made it worse by trying to fix it. But it’s still got its colour and its vitality and can show these modern comics a thing or two about pacing and energy.

I’m mainly on the Marvel kid, but it’s filtering out into the DC comics of that time as well. I can’t read the Showcase collections of DC superheroes from the sixties because it’s just too much, but the odd issue of World’s Finest or Brave and the Bold from 1962 are also going down well. When modern superhero comics are hurtling towards a $10 price point in local currency, paying $5 for a single issue of sixties sci-fi superhero wonkiness is pretty fucking easy.

Marvel’s still got the edge on raw energy. The stories are clumsy to modern eyes, but there is still a loud charm in their desire to please and Stan Lee can build up histrionics like nobody else in the business. Each issue is filled with incident and melodrama and there is a beauty in the bluntness.

There is also a weird beauty in the advertisements of times gone by – comic commercials for products that haven’t existed in years and text-heavy pieces on the squarest of subjects. There is still a lot of charm in Norman Rockwell telling you he’s looking for people who like to draw, there are pleas to move to New Mexico because it’s sunny, and full page ads about hairloss must be due for a comeback, considering the againg man-child that is Marvel’s current core demographic.

But it’s the art that still sings on this cheap newsprint, still has an energy that can not be destroyed. It’s astounding to think of the prolific output of Marvels sixties artists, and the way they still managed to sneak real mood and atmosphere in there, complete with that vitality of the eternally young.

Kirby was king, but there is still brilliant stuff from the likes of Wally Wood and John Romita and Werner Roth and Dick Ayers and Gene Colan. Even poor old Don Heck, who drew the best eyebrows in comics but also took a lot of justifiable criticism for his stilted figures and lacklustre movement, is still unavoidably re-readable

* * *

Jack Kirby died a few years ago, and the world of comics is all the poorer for it, but his art can still kick your arse, decades after he scratched out his living.

He lived long enough to see his craziest ideas used as the basic foundation of the business but his legacy is getting tougher by the years, and his comics will still look colourful and new for the next few centuries.

The issue of Fantastic Four #62 I got for a dollar won’t last that long, but it’ll last a few more years with proper care and attention. Flipping through it on a daily basis is certain to shortern that life, but I can’t help myself.

And I want more. I might have to pay more than $1 for it, but they’ve got me now. I’m hooked on 43-year-old comics. Took me long enough.

Friday, June 4, 2010

One punch!

Punching somebody unconscious is an exceedingly dangerous thing to do, despite what the comics say.

The Marvel and DC universes are exceedingly dangerous places to be, with major cities wiped out on a disturbingly regular basis. But they still breed ‘em tough. They can get knocked out with a shot to the jaw and get up again with a groan and a slightly sore head five minutes later.

When you get punched out in the real world, you often don’t get up again. There are lots of people out there with murder hanging on their souls because they didn't realise this.

I remember getting really angry over this idiotic hypocrisy of "bad media" in the early nineties, when something like the Evil Dead movies were seen as far too violent for anybody to handle, when the Home Alone movies were also coming out and viewed as respectable family entertainment, despite showing that people can take blows to the head and come up fine.

This was a time when the film industry quite happily produced three films in the repulsive Problem Child series, which relied on all sorts of incredibly dangerous behaviour by the obnoxious lead character for cheap laughs and was totally acceptable for young viewers, but something like Robocop was cut into incoherence before it could play on late night television.

This hypocrisy over media violence – whether it was the EC comics, or the video nasties, or the bloody Child’s Play movies – was aggravating when it was perfectly fine to sit a kid in front of an old John Wayne western in which he kills hundreds of Indians, or indulge in some harmless slapstick that involved people getting smacked in the face with blunt objects.

For any kid living in the harmless world of mainstream comic books, knocking somebody out seems just as harmless, and the thought of what it is doing to these people’s heads is nothing worth thinking about.

But there are plenty of comic characters who must be terribly damaged. As somebody who has been a member of the X-Men in some form since the very beginning, poor old Scott Summers must have suffered irreparable brain damage after being knocked out continuously while his brain was still forming. It continued well into adulthood, through at least one death and resurrection. No wonder he keeps falling for telepaths, whether they're red-heads or diamond girls or baldies, they must be the only ones holding his poor battered head together.

Green Lantern was also famously susceptible to the odd bout of unconsciousness – a tradition that dated back to the fine old Golden Age, where Alan Scott was always being knocked out by a plank of wood. (I got hit in the head with a relatively tiny piece of wood when I was a kid and it damn near killed me.)

Later on, Hal Jordan took a few knocks, which is only to be expected when you’re dealing with the only comic character that could be laid out by a bowl of custard. But this can’t be good for him. Who needs a Big Yellow Fear Monster to justify going mental when you’ve got a broken skull?

It’s fine when Batman punches out bad guys, usually because they’re murderous jerks who will probably be better members of society with a little brain damage, but what about when he laid out Guy Gardener? It’s a deservedly classic moment in eighties superhero comics - thanks to its genuine comic timing - but considering Guy had a history of severe head trauma that had already led to a change in personality, knocking him out for being a bit lippy could be incredibly dangerous.

Poor Guy! After all that, he will probably die of an aneurism before he hits fifty! Hell, even poor old Curly from The Three Stooges had a succession of minor cerebral haemorrhages before being the first stooge to shuffle off the mortal coil, blamed almost entirely on Moe’s predilection for cracking something over his skull.

Fortunately, we’ve evolved as a civilisation so that we don’t need to go around punching each other. We all have people we’d like to smack in the face, but the vast majority of us manage to get through our lives without resorting to punching. It certainly still happens, especially when we get a bit boozed up, but the dangers of hitting people in the head are well known.

The DC and Marvel universe might be more technologically advanced than our own, but they still haven’t realised the dangers of unconsciousness. Or maybe they are just a bit tougher, and head trauma is a perfectly legitimate form of psycho-therapy. Maybe that’s all Doc Samson does – slap around his patients until they’re docile and happy.

Judging by the results from the revolving door at the entrance to Arkham Asylum, it isn’t working, but it must be fun. In a universe where the Joker just keeps on coming back to unleash awful carnage, two-by-four therapy may not do him any good, but it couldn’t hurt the person holding the wood.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lost in the Library #7: Just pleasure, no guilt

Requiem: Vampire Knight – Dracula and The Vampires Ball
By Mills/Ledriot

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but this is cutting it close. The Requiem: Vampire Knight series is garish and over the top and more than a bit nonsensical. The art is splashed with decadence, basic anatomy is chucked out the window and hyper-proportioned warriors go mental with the sex and violence.

But then there is a bit where the reborn Dracula is in his warship floating through the afterlife and he opens a weapon called The Doomsday Man, who turns out to be Hitler, and then stabs him through the heart, with the psychic energy of the evil man’s death powerful enough to wipe out thousands of attacking wraiths, and I realised I was enjoying the shit out of this.

It’s Pat Mills, so that’s probably why. Mills has spent decades sprinkling liberal doses of humanity and humour on outlandish concepts, and this series sees him carry on this fine tradition.

It’s big and bold and sexy and exciting in a typically French way, but it’s Mills that gives the story a proper heart. And then stakes the fucker with a giant wooden phallus.

* * *

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity
By Carey and Gross

This series: none more Vertigo.

The imprint has had its fair sheer of brilliant comics over the years, but there has always been some thoroughly average books that were readable enough and never really essential. They played up to the strengths of early Vertigo – all fairies and working class life and metafictional madness – but never really thrilled. The Books of Magic was the first to hang in there like this, publishing dozens of likeable, unessential comics, followed by Lucifer, which lasted almost as long as Sandman without anything vaguely interesting happening and Carey is back in that realm of mediocrity with The Unwritten.

It’s all painfully predictable and adhering to such a strict formula that it’s a bit un-nerving. There are mad serial killers and loads of literary in-jokes and lots of serious people making serious faces.

It would help if somebody lightened up a bit, but Tom Taylor is a bit too fucking precious about the whole thing and I have no interest in following his story much further.

Carey has carved out a respectable career by producing perfectly respectable stories like The Unwritten, but he’s never thrilled me and while this series is readable enough, it’s nothing more than that.

It would also be nice if we can have a break from main characters with daddy issues who must face up to their destiny. There are other stories to tell…..

* * *

By Brubaker and Phillips

It’s certainly an interesting read, but it doesn’t really resonate like Criminal. This may be because there really isn’t anything like Criminal out there right now, but the idea of a pulp infused superhero trying to make up for sins of the past has been done plenty of times before.

There aren’t any crime comics as tight and satisfying as Criminal, but there are plenty of similar things to Incognito. Mark waid is doing something similar – if a little bit more generic - over at Boom. And even though it’s Icon, Incognito feels a lot like the Wildstorm stuff that came out around the turn of the century – interesting takes on superheroes that were cutting edge a decade ago, but now just feel a little regressive.

Still, Brubaker remains a tight plotter with a real ear for natural dialogue that makes most other comic writers look like they’re trying too hard, while Phillips is as enjoyable and dirty as ever. The story does bounce along nicely on the nicely pulp vibe.

It doesn’t have the ice-cold fission of their other Icon book, but hardly anything else on the market does these days, so that’s no real shame. It’s a high standard to reach.